Sunday, September 8, 2013

The Limitation of Pith

The tenth anniversary of my father's death passed without comment last week. I'm not troubled by my failure to acknowledge it because Dad remains a presence in my life.  He also, with each passing day, becomes less of an absence.  The hole remains, but the place he occupied has grown and grows bigger than the hole he left.

I wonder if that makes sense.

Anyway, here are two things about me: when I was younger, I lurved me some pithy quotes.  When I got married, my wedding favors were meaningful, cute or clever quotes attached to a little bag of candy.  I was super proud of those wedding favors. When we bought our house, I had this idea that I would have a special room of my own that would be covered in meaningful, cute or clever quotes.   Up here in my 40s, though, I'm less partial to pithy quotes and get kind of annoyed by how reductive they are; how bereft of meaning they are outside of context.

Next: part of this whole atheist thing is a fierce commitment to rejecting bullshit.  And while it's easy enough to reject bullshit when it's coming from the likes of Pat Robertson or Tony Perkins, it remains a challenge to reject your own bullshit.  To wit: I think there was a lot of flight-anxiety induced bullshit in my last post. For further examples of some Sophoclean levels of anti-bullshit activists blind to their own bullshit see either the late Christopher Hitchens or the current Penn Jillette.

So, let's go back to ten years ago and the year following and how I comforted myself.  I told myself again and again that as sucky and awful as it was to lose my father so soon, at least we had him.  The joy of having had a father like I did was so much more substantial than the pain of having lost him.

And then I was reading this story about the end of Breaking Bad in Entertainment Weekly (just stay with me here) where Aaron Paul quotes Dr. Suess, "Don't cry because it's over, smile because it happened."

And I thought for a moment that my grief-induced bullshit had found its partner in pithy quote.

Except, no.  The comfort I took was bullshit-free. I've had ten years to think about this and I remain convinced. Furthermore, the unfairly maligned pithy quote is perfectly adequate for stuff like the end of Breaking Bad (SOB and also OMFG can't wait), but it doesn't work for the death of a loved one because this is not an either/or proposition. We can cry because it's over and smile because it happened at the same time.  We are complicated people able to feel all the feelings at once.  As a wise woman once said, "Laughter through tears is my favorite emotion!"


A few months before my father died, he called me. This was weird, since normally I called and talked about life with my mother and then discussed baseball and/or politics with Dad.  But he called to tell me he was worried about me because I hadn't had a baby and he knew I really wanted to have a baby.

You guys all know that I really wanted to have a baby for about six years before I got a baby (I didn't get a baby, I got the Best Goddamn Toddler In the Whole Mothereffing World is what I got).   I'd spent a chunk of those six years convincing myself that everything was OK, that I just needed to keep calm and carry on (retrofitting that one into the aughties), and that I shouldn't burden the people around  me with my anxiety.  But when Dad dialed me up out of the blue to say he was worried about me, it gave me permission to just let loose. I sat on my back porch with the phone at my ear and I cried and cried and cried. To this day I don't know how, from 500 miles away, he knew that I needed permission to grieve and that he was the right guy to grant that permission.

I can smile at the memory of that liberating, unexpected moment of long distance empathy and I can cry knowing that he never got to know the little girl who finally healed those wounds he was giving me permission to acknowledge.

But mostly, I can set my mind to his life more than his death.

There's no pithy quote to sum that up.  But there is poetry.

And there is music: